Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section IV.5)

Section IV.5: Parameters for a doctrine of the atonement: ontology

An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …

(5) … ontological. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. Classically, ontology is the study of “the ‘what’ … which indicates the substance of a thing” (Metaphysics VII.1). To describe something as “ontological” is to relate this thing to being itself. The ontology of God is thus an investigation into the nature of God’s being. Already in previous posts, particularly on actualism, we have investigated ontology at some length. The qualification of actualism means that ontology in this study is no longer concerned with “the substance of a thing” but rather with the act of a thing, the event of a thing’s being. An actualistic ontology thus understands being as the consequent of act. At the very least, being and act coinhere so that being is being-as-act and act is act-as-being. And on the level of epistemology, God’s being—qualitatively distinct from creaturely being—is only noematically accessible in light of divine action. The basic contours of an actualistic ontology we have already sketched in the previous section, along with the identity of the atonement as the reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ. Our concern now is to focus on the ontological nature of the atonement, i.e., how this reconciling act is definitive of both God’s being and ours.

The ontology of the atonement follows from the acceptance of two presuppositions: (1) a christological actualistic ontology, and (2) a strong doctrine of the hypostatic union in Jesus Christ. The latter implies other theological assumptions which have been and will be discussed when necessary, including but not limited to the following: (3) the objectivity of the incarnation, which asserts the efficacy of the incarnation apart from our subjective awareness of that christological event; and (4) the doctrine of election as developed by Karl Barth. Now of these theological topics, (1) and (4) have been addressed at length already, and (3) has been a theme throughout §8. Consequently, I will devote the rest of this section to the hypostatic union and the ontological grounding of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Along the way, of course, I will articulate the other emphases when necessary for explanatory purposes.

The event of the atonement looks in two directions at once: backward to the protological act of election and forward to the eschatological realization of new being in the ecclesial community. Both dimensions—past and future—find their ontic center in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the hinge for divine and human history. Jesus Christ is both the God who elects in pretemporal eternity to be God for us and the humanity elected by God to be humanity for God. As Deus pro nobis, Jesus Christ is both self-positing and self-posited, electing and elected, the God who assumes and the humanity that is assumed. Jesus is the ontological unity of the divine Logos and the human nature; the triune God and the ecclesial community are indissolubly linked in the incarnate Christ. In the person of Christ we look backwards and forwards, inward into the being of God ad intra and outward into the being of the church. We find this hinge between God and humanity in the hypostatic union.

The atonement is an ontological event because of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, the Logos definitively assumed human nature, joining God and humanity in the decisive act of God ad extra. The assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh) is a clarification of God’s being in carne (in the flesh). Jesus Christ is not merely the Logos in the form of a human; he also embodies and actualizes the gracious taking up of humanity into the life of God. In the joining of the Logos to human nature, the triune God actively assumes what is other than God into the very being of God. In other words, the incarnation is itself the event of reconciliation. The very act of incarnation is the reconciliation of what is not-God with God, and thus the incarnation itself points forward in expectation of the cross. The incarnation depends upon the essential events of crucifixion and resurrection, in which God redeemed sinful humanity and reconciled the world to Godself. The assumption of humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ presupposes the mission of the Son to suffer and die in the place of sinful humanity. The atonement is an act of God which encompasses the entire life of Jesus from birth to ascension.

In the assumptio carnis, the Logos did not assume an abstract humanity without any relation to particular human persons; rather the Logos assumed the concrete human nature that is common to us all.
Jesus the human being (the homo humanus) is identical with human nature (the natura humana), so that Christian doctrine is right to express the mystery of God’s becoming human not as him taking on human life (assumptio hominis), but as him assuming human nature (assumptio humanae naturae) in the person of the Son of God. In this way the early theologians with their language and thinking about substance and ontology emphasized the universal scope of the identity of the Son of God with the one distinctive person Jesus. In so doing they dared to think that Jesus Christ is the sacramentum mundi – the generally recognized great Sacrament per se (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16). Not only was God shown as reconciling the world in him, but this reconciliation was accomplished in him. (Jüngel, Justification 161-62)
Jesus is the sacrament of the world, and thus the sacrament of each individual person. In the assumption of human flesh, Jesus assumed my flesh. Consequently, we are joined to Christ in a real and ontological manner. Our very life is grounded in him: his death to sin is our death, his life of obedience is our life, and the reality of his resurrection will be our reality (2 Cor. 5:14-15). According to a christological actualistic ontology, our being is a being-in-act only insofar as our being is located in the being of Jesus Christ. His life is our life; his humanity is our humanity; his being-in-act is our being-in-act. The primacy of the past event of Christ’s atoning life and death does not reduce reality into a crude christomonism, but instead properly situates our own present historical existence within the narrative of God’s gracious and sovereign will. Thus, it is necessary for us to distinguish properly between past and present, between Christ and us. At another time I will address in detail the three tenses of salvation—past, present, and future—but for now it will suffice to examine the ontology of the atonement in relation to the past reality of Jesus Christ and the present reality of believers.

Our thesis is that the person of Jesus Christ is the definitive and constitutive center of each person’s being. Against fears that this evacuates present reality of any significance, we must assert that this kind of strong doctrine of the incarnation does not undermine but rather preserves a proper place for our present existence by redefining the being of humanity as the humanity of Jesus Christ. The axiom undergirding this thesis comes from Col. 3:3: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Our life—our true life—is hidden from us in the person of Jesus Christ, and thus in the being of God. Our identity is not located in ourselves (in nobis) but outside of ourselves (extra nos). The external center of existence—our de-centeredness in Christ—is a reality known only by faith. Through faith alone, we awaken with new eyes to see that the ontological ground of our being is indeed Jesus Christ, even though present reality would seem to indicate otherwise. Faith, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, is “the conviction of things not seen,” and one of the things “not seen” is the center of our existence. Often Christians confuse the center of their being with the “soul,” which is a metaphor that simply means we are more than the sum of our biological parts. However, this extra something, this superadded plus of being which often bears the name “soul,” is not something we possess, but instead a relation toward the external ground of our existence in God. Thus, it is theologically more appropriate not to speak of a “soul” but instead to identify the ontological ground of our being in Jesus Christ; or rather, the ground of our being is Jesus Christ.

The ontology of the atonement thus connects past, present, and future in the person of Jesus Christ as the center of both human history in general and each person’s history in particular. Christ’s actualized existence is the ontological locus of our existence, to which we are existentially conformed by faith alone (sola fide). Our ontological being is Christ; our ontic-existential being is in conformity to Christ (conformitas Christi). To put this another way, our essential being is the consequent of God’s acting in Jesus Christ ‘for us and our salvation,’ while our existential being is the consequent of God’s acting in us through faith. Both dimensions of reconciliation—past and present, ontological and existential—are the work of God who reconciles the world to Godself. The former—“God was in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19)—definitively establishes our new being through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; the latter—“God in us” (Deus in nobis)—existentially disrupts and reorients us through the ‘word of the cross’ which creates faith.

In more traditional terms, the former is the doctrine of the atonement and the latter is the doctrine of justification. Here, however, we are expanding the atonement to include past, present, and future. The past event of reconciliation is the atoning work of Jesus Christ; the present event of justification is the unifying work of the Spirit; and the future event of resurrection is the consummating work of the triune God “who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6) and will in the eschaton be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Together, the three temporal stages of reconciliation all depend upon the primal act of the Father who creates and elects through the Son and in the Spirit.

Atonement (the past event of new creation) is thus intimately related to justification (the present event of new creation). In the same way that justification is not a purely forensic event but is ontologically effective, so too is the atonement an ontological event. The reason why reconciliation and ontology must be thought together is found in the person of Jesus, who establishes the atonement between God and humanity and declares the justifying ‘word of the cross.’ “For Christ is our peace,” as the author of Ephesians declares, in whose flesh God created “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Eph. 2:14-15). The accomplishment of the atonement in the person of Jesus, however, is not the end of the story. Even though Jesus reconciled the world “to God in one body through the cross,” he now proclaims “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:16-17). Peace was ontologically established in the person of Christ, in whom “one new humanity” was created. But now God brings this new humanity to us in the existential event of justification. The faithfulness of Jesus is the ground for our faith in him, and the being of Jesus as the eschatologically new human person is the proleptic realization of our new being. Jesus is the true and definitive imago Dei, and we ontologically correspond to him by conforming to the imago Christi through faith alone.

Faith is thus an ontologically reflective Yes to God’s ontologically effective Yes to us in Jesus Christ; that is, faith brings one’s individual being into correspondence with one’s true being in the person of Christ. Faith, as the gracious gift of God, ontically connects past and present, Christ and humanity. By grace alone (sola gratia), our being-in-faith corresponds to the being-in-faith of Jesus—a correspondence that awaits the eschatological consummation of God’s reality toward which both past and present point in hopeful expectation. Both aspects, the christological and the existential—‘there and then’ and ‘here and now’—are entirely grace. Reconciliation in Christ and the existential realization of new being are an overflowing of God’s utterly gratuitous being-as-love.

In conclusion, we must not shy away from ontology. The great christological formulas are rooted in questions of ontology, though their presuppositions are far different from our own. We have not touched on the communicatio idiomatum or the patristic emphasis on deification, nor have we addressed the christological conflict between deification and impassibility in patristic theology or the conflict between a classical substance ontology and a modern actualistic ontology. Our intention here has been simply to articulate the basis for an ontology of the atonement, and this basis is none other than Christ Jesus our Lord. The incarnation is more than a concept to talk about during Advent; it is the ground of our hope. The hypostatic union is more than a term for academic theologians; it is the basis for our identity, the locus of our humanity. A Christian ontology begins and ends here, with the incarnate Son of God who is extra nos, pro nobis, and by the grace of God, in nobis. The heart of the gospel and the locus of our identity is found in the God who became Emmanuel, God with us, in Jesus Christ—the one who graciously took on our estranged humanity in order to awaken us to new life. In him alone we hear the words of liberating hope: “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).


Anonymous said…
"And on the level of epistemology, God’s being—qualitatively distinct from creaturely being—is only noematically accessible in light of divine action."

What does this mean? More specifically, are you drawing a distinction between the noetic and the noematic à la Husserl? If so, why? I'm no phenomenologist, but I don't see how distinguishing the poles of intentionality can possibly support your point about the priority of divine action. If not, then what are you saying here?
D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for pointing out Husserl on that point. I think either "noetic" or "noematic" could work in this sentence, but perhaps not. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think "noesis" refers to the process of thought and "noema" refers to the object of thought. I'm definitely not trying to make any subtle phenomenological distinctions here.

Perhaps I should change it to "noetically accessible" -- referring to the process of thinking God. Or I could say, "God's being ... only becomes a noema ..." Both aspects are important -- both the human act of thinking God and God as the object of thought. What do you think, Shane?
Anonymous said…
i'd just change it to say, "can be thought." I'm really not a Husserlian, but I do take classes at the Orthodox Church of Husserlian Phenomenology. The basic idea of the noetic/noematic is this:

Since at least Descartes we have conceived of knowledge as a relation between my inner subjectivity and objects 'out there'. This is what Husserl calls the subject/object dichotomy. The split between subjects and objects does two terrible things to philosophy: 1. Mires meaning and truth in individual subjectivity and, closely related, 2. Introduces intractable epistemological problems. How do I know that my subjectivity has anything to do whatsoever with the objectivity of objects in themselves. (Read "Kant").

Husserl wants to overcome the subject object dichotomy by returning to the scholastic notion of intentionality. For Husserl there is not a split between subjects and objects, rather there is a relation between them with two poles. If I intend a tree as a tree, it is because the tree is presenting itself to me as such. Husserl names these two poles the noetic pole (the knowing side) and the noematic pole (the known/showing side). It is not that the tree is a static object waiting for me to perceive or cognize it--rather the tree is shaping my intentionality by revealing itself in a certain way.

Thus the noema is not simply the object of thought, it is also part of the process of thought for Husserl.

I like this phenomenological approach, but I have my misgivings about its appropriateness for theology. If you would like to talk more about that later, I propose we look at some J.-L. Marion, since he has made this case most vociferously.

D.W. Congdon said…
Well, based on that, I am inclined to keep the language of noema, only because it seems rather helpful to speak of God as the self-revealing noema -- since Barth wishes to understand God as the subject and object of thought. I realize this isn't exactly what Husserl means, but it definitely seems like the definition of noema points more helpfully in this direction.

I did intend to relate noetical/noematical and ontological in that paragraph, and I'd like to keep that comparison in some way. But I suppose your suggestion is more clear.

What is the basic argument against the noesis/noema distinction for theology?
Anonymous said…
So, put on your wading boots, because there is bullshit ahead. Marion makes a distinction between idols and icons. An idol is a fixed thing whose content is determinable by my subjective processes, such as intentionalitiy. The 'gaze' comes to rest upon an idol and stops there. I intend the idol and it, dumb and mute, nevertheless shows itself to me in some way.

The difference between an idol and an icon is that the icon does not show itself within the frame of intentional consciousness, it 'arrests' the intending gaze of the spectator. The idol is a representation; the icon is the thing itself and it turns the intention of the knower inside out. You look at an idol; an icon looks at you.

That's the most sense I can make out of what Marion is saying at the moment. I think he has a point to say that our knowledge of God is different than our knowledge of ordinary objects and that there is something inadequate in general phenomenological categories to do justice to it. But, hey, who knows? I'm just a medievalist.